Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 3
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
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Princeton Symphony Orchestra Presents World Premiere of Clarinet Concerto

Nancy Plum

Oboes and clarinets were busy on Sunday afternoon as the Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented its winter concert in Richardson Auditorium. Guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, a new assistant conductor with the Atlanta Symphony, led the Princeton ensemble in pieces which placed a great deal of emphasis on winds, most notably Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds and a newly commissioned clarinet concerto by American composer Paul Moravec.

In his spoken introduction to his clarinet concerto (which was commissioned by the Princeton Symphony), Mr. Moravec described the work as “neo-klezmer,” referring to a style of music in which the clarinet goes far beyond the scope of classical clarinet playing. Mr. Moravec composed the work specifically for clarinetist David Krakauer, billed as “one of the world’s leading exponent of Eastern European Jewish klezmer music” and an established virtuoso on the instrument.

Through this concerto, Mr. Moravec sought to showcase the soloist’s unique abilities and focus on the clarinet’s virtuosic capabilities. He scored the work for clarinet solo and strings alone, so that no sound onstage would detract from the sound of the clarinet, and from the outset, the pizzicato effect in the strings set a very different backdrop for the solo instrument. Mr. Krakauer opened his solo with a very jazzy melody, slightly reminiscent of Bernstein in its offbeat rhythms. Mr. Krakauer maintained the rhythm of the piece very steadily in the outer two movements and conveyed a long intense melody (with a rich lower register) in the second movement. He never sounded as though he were out of control of his instrument, no matter how far outside the normal register the music strayed.

Ms. Chen conducted the piece as if she had known it all her life, with well handled shifts to more lyrical sections of the piece. The lower strings were especially effective in supporting the lower register of the clarinet. This was a nicely orchestrated work, and it was especially intriguing to hear that the Princeton Symphony would be presenting this concerto as part of their educational program, reaching up to 7,000 students and no doubt interesting some of them in pursuing the clarinet. Mr. Moravec also dedicated this world premiere to long-time Princeton musical philanthropist John A. Ellis.

This concerto was framed by more standard works which the Princeton Symphony had well in hand. Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds showed a rich lower wind sound, beginning with a hard-driving contrabassoon, cello, and double bass. Solos for wind players abounded, including oboist Caroline Park and clarinetist Pascal Archer. Ms. Chen demonstrated from the outset that she is a decisive conductor, with firm control over the ensemble and taking sufficient time between movements.

Ms. Chen conducted the last two works on the program by memory. Rossini’s Overture to La Scala di Seta is a musical gumdrop, and Ms. Chen kept the piece sufficiently lighthearted. Wind solos by Ms. Park as well as flutist Jayn Rosenfeld (who doubled on piccolo) added sparkle to the work. The symphony closed the program with Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, a work the ensemble has performed numerous times and which never gets old to the audience. Ms. Chen opened the symphony in a very quick tempo, maintaining well the Italianate lilt, and conducted sufficiently languidly in the later movements. This is always a popular work with the Princeton Symphony’s audiences, and the reaction of the audience on Sunday afternoon indicated that Ms. Chen would be a viable choice as the next Music Director of the orchestra.

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